Adam Donkers and many of his friends at the University of Minnesota don’t need to worry about jobs after graduating. They’re majoring in agricultural sciences or agricultural business, and large and small companies are eager to hire them.
“Pretty much every member [of my ag fraternity] has a full-time job when they’re graduating,” Donkers said. “Every junior has an internship, most of the sophomores have internships and a good handful of freshmen have internships.”
Job posting boards, on-campus interviews and a special annual career fair for ag students show much the same trend, according to Sara Newberg, director of the university career center that assists ag majors.
“We have a limited number of students with an interest in that career direction and far more employers interested in hiring them,” Newberg said.
Donkers, raised on a family farm near Faribault, Minn., is a junior majoring in agricultural business. He’ll learn about agricultural lending this summer at CoBank, a co-op that specializes in farm credit. It will be Donkers’ third internship in three years, and he’s interested in grain merchandising as a career.
Donkers is also president of the Gopher Crops and Soils Club, and he said his peers are majoring in fields from ag business and agronomy to plant science, marketing and animal science.
Agribusiness firms are invited to attend club meetings, especially in the fall, he said, and are happy to oblige.
“They have the earlier internships so that they can snatch up people and see if they would work out well for full-time employment,” Donkers said.
The big picture
Purdue University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture studied the shortfall in agricultural jobs on a national basis, and estimated that from 2010 to 2015 there would be about 54,400 openings each year in agriculture and natural resource jobs, and about 29,300 graduates from specialized colleges and university departments to fill them.
One of the bigger gaps was in science and engineering, according to the Purdue report, with more than 14,000 jobs available to those with baccalaureate or higher degrees each year and only 6,200 specialized graduates.
The shortage is being filled by graduates recruited from “allied disciplines,” the study said — schools of engineering, health sciences and business.
Brian Buhr, dean of the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, said there’s clearly a need for more ag students in the pipeline, and he’s not surprised that companies are doubling down to find newly trained scientists.
“There’s a whole high-tech side of ag that’s really booming,” he said. “It’s everything from robotics and sensors in harvesting equipment or livestock production systems, or even managing soil and drainage issues, all the way over to the genetics and genomics side of the world.”
Buhr said the college has established a working group with representatives from Cargill, CHS Inc., Land O’Lakes Inc. and other companies to discuss the issue.
“They’re expressing this question of where does the next-generation workforce come from,” he said.
Going upstream for workers
Some additional graduates may come from community and four-year colleges in farm country.
Earlier this month, three schools in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system announced that they will team up and pool resources to address the shortage of skilled workers in the ag industry. The effort, called AgCentric, will begin in September and includes Central Lakes College in Staples, Ridgewater College in Willmar and Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls. Northland already offers a program in unmanned aerial systems, or drones, that will be increasingly used by farmers to detect pest infestations, dry areas and other field problems.
Adam Holton, CHS senior vice president of human resources, said the shortage of trained students is not a crisis, but that it has become more difficult to find and attract the best candidates in some areas.
“In our case, that runs the gamut on the pure engineering side with our energy business to our agriculture side to our processing and food ingredients,” he said. CHS is the nation’s largest farmer-owned cooperative. “There is a challenge, and as we go into the future it will get harder.”
To recruit the best people for its needs, Holton said, CHS has heightened is efforts to go “upstream” and contact undergraduate and community college students early in their studies to inform them about ag-related fields and careers. The company also maintains strong partnerships with colleges and universities, he said.
Larry Meadows, Land O’Lakes’ senior communications manager, said one problem for agribusinesses is that many people, including students, don’t realize the complexity and sophisticated knowledge needed to grow crops, process and transport food, and compete globally.
“People think about the farm and that’s it,” he said. “They don’t think about the opportunity in IT, the opportunity in commodity risk, the opportunity from an investment and finance standpoint.”
Land O’Lakes recruits on many campuses each year, Meadows said, and last fall pledged $1 million to the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences for ag-related programs and scholarships.
Swing back to basics
Don Wyse, a professor in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the U, has watched the number of students in agricultural sciences fluctuate over the past four decades, and has supervised graduate students who took their advanced degrees into plant breeding and genetics labs at Monsanto, Syngenta and other companies.
Those jobs were in demand during the past decade, Wyse said, and students lost interest in basic agronomy — the science of growing crops for production — because there were fewer opportunities.
Now the pendulum is swinging back, said Wyse, because companies have determined that their future profits may depend less on new genetics, and more on improved crop systems that increase yields by using precision agriculture.
“So now the companies are stepping up and saying, where in the world are all the agronomists? And where are all the applied cropping systems people?” he said.
That might include people to analyze chlorophyll in plants to see how well they’re growing, Wyse said, or specialists to design precision planting equipment, or analysts to study soil chemistry and crop history to predict which varieties to plant and how far apart to space them.
“It’s a wide array of opportunities,” he said.
Holton, of CHS, agrees, and said basic agronomy knowledge coupled with the latest technical skills will be a winning combination for job seekers.
“The needs continue to grow to feed a hungry world with the same amount or less of acreage, and that’s all coming through technology: environmental sciences and agricultural sciences,” he said. “My guess is there are jobs that will exist in precision ag 10 years from now that we’re not even thinking about right now.”